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Driscoll’s CEO on servant leadership

Driscoll's CEO Kevin Murphy on leading a family company without being family, and why doubt is a good thing.

7 min read


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SmartBrief illustration by James daSilva

It took a while. There were many emails sent back and forth searching for available dates. It’s hard when you lead a company that has operations in almost 30 countries and sales in over 60. But, the wait was worth it.

Kevin Murphy is the CEO of Driscoll’s. My guess is that if you were to look at the strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and more in your refrigerator, you’d find the Driscoll’s logo adorning the package.

Murphy’s route to Driscoll’s was hardly direct. He was born in South Africa. After college and some time in the military, he jumped aboard a sailboat and sailed from South Africa to South America and then up through the Caribbean. He eventually found work on another sailboat and wound up on the West Coast, where he met his wife. They eventually settled in Monterey, Calif., and with a background and degree in agriculture, found a home in the industry.

Today, he is the first non-family CEO of Driscoll’s. I hope you enjoy the interview.

What keeps you up at night?

Photo provided by Kevin Murphy

“We’ve got a labor crisis in California. There are not enough people to pick the crops and given what’s going on Washington and all the rest it’s becoming a real problem. There are those obvious day-to-day issues with the business, whether it be in China, here, or in Australia, whatever, they’ve all got issues. So, there’s that element. We’re a growth business, we continue to grow we’re in almost 30 countries around the world so that’s got my head spinning at times.”

Taking a brief pause for some reflection, Murphy added, “The one that keeps me up the most is that we’ve got a pretty strong culture. How do you keep that culture while we’re growing?”

After all that, “I sleep at night because I give it a good try during the day and when I go to bed I’m tired and I go to sleep. There’s no point wrestling with it too much.”

How do you deal with doubt?

“Doubt is a good thing, a really good thing. Because, when you’re doubting something I believe you’re showing awareness around the potential consequences.”

“I get really nervous when I see leaders that have no doubt. They’re so convinced of X, Y or Z, and I wonder whether they have thought it through. Especially complex tough decisions that are not always easy. When you’re the leader, you don’t get the easy decisions. If they’re easy other people have made them and moved on. You get the tough ones, that’s why you’re the CEO.”

Murphy talked a bit more about how he deals with doubt.

“I think you got to share your doubt, be vulnerable. I think great leaders are not always about being right, I think great leaders are about being honest and being vulnerable and being open to say, ‘Hey, I’m not sure about this, I got some ideas but I need some help.’ I think those are the kind of leaders that people rally around, ones that are open to getting different thinking and different thoughts.”

Murphy ended his answer with this nugget of wisdom. “I think it’s good to have doubt while you’re evaluating all the different opportunities. But, once you make the decision you’ve got to be single-minded and you’ve got to be very purposeful and very, very, very intentional about it. I think that’s the difference. Doubt early on when you’re trying to work out what’s the best way, and then be very purposeful when you make the decision and move on with it.”

How do you find time for you?

“What I’ve learned is that, if you want to work 24/7, it’s there for you to do. There’s someone awake working somewhere in the world where we operate, so you’ve got to be disciplined.”

“I spend time watching what I eat, I’m not fanatical about it. I also carve out time for exercise whether it be going for a run or doing something that gets you sweating. It rejuvenates the brain, it’s amazing. I try to do it at lunch time so I don’t generally have lunch, I will go out and exercise whatever it is, running or the gym. I even play squash.”

“I’m a big reader, I love to read books on all sorts of stuff. I’m really interested in how things work and why they work.”

What have you learned about connecting with, motivating and engaging people?

“What I’ve learned is you need to meet people in their world. There’s an old saying, ‘Seek to understand before being understood.’ I think it’s one of the most valuable things you can do.”

“When you’re engaging someone who you really sense is listening to you and is really trying to understand, it becomes a very powerful motivator.”

Murphy added, “I think if leaders did more listening and less talking we’d be a whole lot better off. Because when you understand where they’re coming from and what motivates them, you can really unlock their potential.”

What have been some of the surprises of leadership?

“It’s an interesting question because the old adage is, as you get older, you realize there are more questions than answers, right? You come to this idea that when you’re younger there’s a lot of black and white and when you get older there’s a lot of gray. As you come to that realization you also realize leadership is not about being right all the time or having all the answers, but more around how do you create the learning and the purpose. I think great leaders are comfortable with not having all the answers and not being right. They create space for others to provide value.”

“The thing that I’ve grown to like over time, that is very satisfying, is to see a team or person perform above what they believe is possible. It’s a great feeling. It’s that servant leadership model where you get this intrinsic value from seeing people or a person really grow and prosper and do well and that’s such a great feeling. That’s been something that has continued to surprise me, how valuable that is, how much you get from that.”

What would your current self tell your former self?

“I’d be a better listener, be more empathetic, be more focused on really trying to understand. That to me is something that’s really valuable. They say youth is wasted on the young. When you’re younger, you got all the energy but you don’t have the knowledge. As you get older, you gain more knowledge. You wish you could do it backward but that’s not possible.”

During our conversation, Murphy mentioned the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Murphy read the book in college and it had a deep impact on him. He said to me, “I own how I respond to circumstances, to the team, the business, and to life in general. And, if I can be a light of positivity, graciousness, or focus for people that’s what motivates me.”


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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on accelerating the growth of emerging food and beverage brands. He helps clients gain distribution and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Food Dive.

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